January 2010 Archives

We got up early Saturday to take a local bus from Dhaka to Noakhali District, best known to Indians as the site of Muslim-Hindu religious violence sixty years ago. We arrived in about 4 hours, and were met by our online friend Masud, who took us to a local guesthouse, and then to meet members of his NGO, PRAN, where we spent the rest of the day interviewing, sharing, and chatting about climate issues (more on this elsewhere).

One of the things we noticed while talking to PRAN staff, utterly unrelated to the content of our conversation, is how well they spoke Bengali. They weren't alone. Bangladeshis generally seem to speak excellent Bengali, unlike many West Bengalis, who frequently produce Bengali peppered with (and sometimes replaced by) English or Hindi, presumably from osmosis living in a tremendously linguistically-diverse part of the world.

People of a certain class in West Bengal seem to speak "Benglish" more than they do Bengali. I've never heard Bangladeshis say things like "আমরা feel করছি" -- incorporating English words into even very simple Bengali speech, something not at all unknown in West Bengal. I'm not at all against incorporating foreign expressions and vocabulary into one's language; but after hearing such lovely Bengali in Bangladesh, the contrast makes clear to me that what I hear on the other side of the border is more of a linguistic hybrid than I'd ever realized.

I'd assumed the biggest linguistic difference between West Bengal and Bangladesh would be different regional accents and terms. I was even listening to Bangladeshi podcasts, to acclimate myself to the accent. But understanding the accent's been a breeze, compared to understanding the larger spoken vocabulary; I should have been listening to podcasts for the vocabulary, not accent. I'm surprised that "they" speak our language much better than "us," in spite of all the pride West Bengalis take in their love of the language (and the occasional jibes at the Bangladeshi accent). It's nice to have one's assumptions questioned.

We'd fallen in love with Dhaka's rickshaw art--the graphic images on the back of cycle-rickshaws all over town. So we headed to "Bicycle Street," the wholesale marketplace where rickshaw owners buy art for their machines. But Friday was a holiday, something we hadn't counted on. We were disappointed to see the area entirely closed up, so we wandered the neighborhood, and then took a fun traffic-free rickshaw ride to the lovely Sitara Mosque, then to Lalbagh Fort. Finally, we walked to Dhakeswari Temple, where local middle/upper-class Hindu Bengalis were celebrating Saraswati Puja; it felt like the expat Hindu Bengali events I'd grown up around.

Lalbagh Fort was the high point of my day, perhaps of my week. It's a Mughal era fortress complex, very nicely preserved, along with the surrounding grounds. It was fun to look at, but the real excitement began when the grounds began to slowly fill up with Dhaka residents out enjoying a weekend afternoon in beautiful surroundings. This place that was once a space for royalty had now been taken over by the masses. We had stumbled upon people-watching heaven.

We saw groups of women hanging out, kids playing running games, families dressed up for a day out. Several athletic young men bounded over a very tall fence into a prohibited area; when a police officer came by, they sheepishly climbed back over, one by one. A woman in a hijab confided to a friend on her cell phone; it sounded like her parents had gotten in the way of her last relationship. An older women and a pre-teen girl walked by the central building, peering through the windows, trying to see what was inside. A group of well-dressed thirtysomething men and women sat in the grass, huddled around a laptop. Children played, running up hillocks in the grass, and helping each other lower themselves into a garden water tank that looked like a empty swimming pool.

And then there were all the young couples--pairs of men and women sitting together in the grass, on ledges, between bushes. They created a private world around them, smiling, sometimes holding hands, ignoring everyone else nearby. The couples-sitting-in-the-park phenomenon is pretty common in India as well, as young lovers have limited access to private space away from family. I've heard people express irritation at how parks taken over by smoochy couples limits access for other users, but that wasn't happening here. I almost wished we were one of them. The grounds on this Friday afternoon was a lovely vision of all kinds of people enjoying themselves in happy coexistence.

Sharing this historic setting with a colorful local crowd on an ordinary weekend afternoon was one of our most memorable travel experiences, but we wouldn't have known it from our Lonely Planet. Some of the happiest moments on our trip have involved people-watching at parks, plazas, and shopping malls. I love serendipity, but I wish travel guide authors would help us out a bit more; we can't be the only ones who enjoy seeing people as much as seeing a string of sights.

B, her dad, and I hired a car for the day and hit the road. First, we hit the Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho in Savar, a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who died during the liberation war. Then off to nearby Dhamrai to see an artisan workshop creating bronze sculpture using a traditional "lost wax" technique. Finally, a quick stop at the Sat Gumbad mosque, built in 1680, and to the National Assembly building, completed in 1982.

Being in a Muslim-majority nation feels weirdly liberating. As a young brown man with a beard living in post-9/11 America, I fit the rough stereotype of Young Muslim Male. It may not be a problem 99% of the time, but I can't entirely escape a racialized consciousness; there's a reason why my parents ask me to shave my beard, why I'm particularly well-behaved at airports, why seeing trucks or motorcycles carrying American flags makes me worry about my safety. I enjoy the fact that in a majority-Muslim country where I sort of look like everyone else, that sense of racialization disappears entirely. The streets are full of clean-cut bearded guys. I may not pass as a local everyman (I'm presumably being read at first glance as a possibly-Muslim upper-class urbanite), but no one would mistake me as dangerous because I might "look Muslim."

Being in 90%-Muslim Bangladesh has also made me feel very much part of a Hindu tribe (9% of the population). Walking around in Old Dhaka with B and her dad, we met a Hindu storekeeper with family near where B's family lives; the pictures of Hindu gods in the store jumped out at me among all his neighbors' culturally-Muslim paraphernalia. We went on to walk through Dhaka's "Hindu Street," seeing crowds of happy Hindu families celebrating Saraswati Puja. At the Liberation War Museum, we met a helpful museum employee; when we asked for directions to a local temple, it was immediately clear she was Hindu. In Dhamrai, we visited Dhamrai Metal Craft, an artisan workshop creating bronze sculptures via an intricate "lost wax" technique. The Banik family that runs the space are locally-prominent Hindus in a community that was once majority-Hindu, but has gained a large Muslim population since the 1971 war. It felt like we self-censored when discussion turned to local (i.e. Muslim) reactions to Hindu religious figures in the presence of our Muslim driver, not wanting to cause offense.

Within our first few days here, we've had several interactions with other Hindus, and the level of quick intimacy has been surprising. We often jump very quickly to issues of safety in the wake of decades of rising and falling anti-Hindu sentiment. Hindus we've spoken to understand the dangers of anti-minority fundamentalism--both anti-Hindu sentiment in Bangladesh as well as anti-Muslim sentiment in India. I can be as philosophically humanist as I want to, but in a situation where there are only two tribes that matter, and that tribal identity is fixed at birth, and embedded in one's name, family customs, and personal habits, it's hard to opt out.

When strangers find out we're visiting via Kolkata, there have been a few instances when we've been very politely asked what religion we follow. We've never hesitated to answer "Hindu," and the answer's invariably been met with smiles. "Ah, so you must not eat beef" surmised an employee at a small-town restaurant where we'd puzzlingly ordered only fish and vegetable dishes. Another man went out of his way to emphasize that he held no communal (i.e. "racial") sentiments, expressing that we're all Bengali, and that he was happy to live in harmony with his Hindu neighbors. We've had a few long conversations spring up. I realize good feelings on an interpersonal basis are complicated by histories of anti-Hindu discrimination, driving millions of Hindus from the region into India as refugees--and yet Bangladeshis are by far the nicest people we've met on our trip, and it's been a delight sharing moments of friendly exchange across barriers.

Racialized identity is complex. If I'm Muslim-identified living in the US (i.e. "Arab/Muslim/South Asian"), I'm equally happy being Hindu-identified in Bangladesh. After all:

"Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains." --Subcomandante Marcos

We woke up early the next day to run errands, then off to the Liberation War Museum. We  spent the afternoon with friends old and new, meandering through crowded allies in Old Dhaka, and checking out local Hindu Saraswati Puja pandals (community altars).

Dhaka's Liberation War Museum documents the struggles of Bangladeshis to win political and cultural autonomy, culminating in independence in 1971. (The standard outline: when India and Pakistan gained freedom from Britain in 1947, geographically-separated but majority-Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan (then "East Pakistan" and "West Pakistan") were lumped into the common Muslim nation of Pakistan. West Pakistani leaders clamped down on Bangladesh's Hindu/Muslim hybrid language and culture, and engaged in economic exploitation. Bangladeshis fought back, first within the system, then calling for more autonomy, and finally winning independence in the face of a West Pakistani military campaign of mass repression, rape, and murder.) The Liberation War Museum is excellent, with a wide range of exhibits, and very clear paragraph-length descriptions for each object. We walked away with a PDA full of notes on names and stories to research. It's all fine and good to speak of people's struggles in impersonal terms, but the museum was effective in bringing three decades of struggle down to a human level:

  • a newspaper clipping reporting the Pakistan government's banning radio stations from broadcasting works by Bengali Nobel Prize winner (and Hindu) Rabindranath Tagore
  • an photo of a female student leader at Dhaka University, standing up to police repression
  • stories and personal articles of soldiers who died in the war
  • lovely liberation war posters, calling for pan-Bengali cultural unity across religious lines
  • photographs, and skulls, of the dead, murdered by West Pakistanis

The loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican was in our heads that day. Signage at The Liberation War Museum described Ted Kennedy's role as an ally to the Bengali people in the face of Nixon's pro-Pakistan anti-Bangladesh stance; a photograph shows him with Mother Teresa, visiting an Indian camp for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing Pakistani terror. The very previous day, we'd read an editorial in the newspaper calling on the government of Bangladesh to honor critical foreign supporters like Ted Kennedy.

It's very hard being half a world away, and seeing all the good that can be done by a lone senator from Massachusetts with a penchant for international human rights -- and then seeing that seat occupied by a man best known nationally for railing against the health care reform process. Whether we like it or not, our provincial domestic U.S. politics casts a long shadow around the world.


We spent our first day in Bangladesh at the Indian consulate trying to make sure we could get back into India (a matter still in limbo), before exploring the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka, littered with expensive homes, and financial and NGO offices.

A recent Indian "anti-terrorist" policy bars most travelers from re-entering within 60 days of their last exit. This keeps tourists from using India as a base to explore nearby countries, or Indians abroad from making emergency family visits after a previous trip. This was big news in India, with the Minister of State for External Affairs criticizing the policy on Twitter, and then facing a barrage of criticism for expressing opinions without going through bureaucratic channels.

Indian officials stated that this will impact very few genuine travelers; turns turns out we're one of them, since we'd been planning to take a side trip to Bangladesh from India with B's dad. Officials also announced relaxation of the rules for genuine travelers, something we double-checked with US and Indian government offices and websites. Our trip was fine, an Indian consular official in Dhaka told us -- all we had to do was get someone at the Dhaka Indian consulate to endorse our re-entry as genuine travelers, per those newly relaxed rules.

We spent several hours of our first full day in Bangladesh at the Indian consulate, trying to get someone who knew what was going on. Folks we spoke to hadn't even heard of the "no re-entry within 60 days" rule, let alone the subsequent relaxation. B had a fit, experiencing massive bureaucratic incompetence that might keep her from being able to go back to the country she grew up in.

B, her dad, and I have since made another visit to the consulate, made several phone calls, and sent some frantic emails. We're cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to work our way through this Indian bureaucratic nightmare to finish our family trip in India, but the situation isn't clear. Our Bangladesh visa runs out in about two weeks, and unless we get permission to return to India, we'll have to cancel our plans and self-deport to a third country.

It's unfortunate that we're having to waste time during our visit to Bangladesh dealing with idiotic policies. We'd promised B's mom and my 93-year-old grandfather that we'd come back and see them; it's misguided policy if this is being put under the category of evil terroristic acts.

We spent Monday on the bus. B, her dad, and I trooped into a Green Line long-distance bus in Kolkata at 9:00 am. We spent three and a half hours passing through grey, fairly uninteresting roads, heading westwards through West Bengal, India, toward Bangladesh. The fun began at the border zone, where an incompetent Indian government employee didn't want to let us leave the country; he had to escalate the conversation to a senior official before he figured out we were allowed to exit. Then we passed into no man's land, which, puzzlingly, was a busy small town street filled with people. An employee from our bus company helped us through what felt like a maze of badly-marked buildings, as we prepared to enter Bangladesh.

As we stepped across the border line, Bangladesh looked just like India, but for one thing. The police officers all wore matching green jackets. On the back of each jacket was the word "পুলিশ": "POLICE" in Bengali. It was lovely: we were in a truly Bengali nation, where signage was in almost-universally-intelligible Bengali, the language of the people, rather than in colonial English.

I imagine that this is how some some Jewish visitors must feel during their first trip to Israel, seeing Hebrew, previously experienced as a private cultural or religious language, used as the modern language of an entire nation-state.

I think I understand the tug of linguistic and cultural nationalism a little better now. In the Bengali-majority Indian state of West Bengal, official signage is frequently in English (or Hindi) in deference to the broad linguistic diversity of the state and nation's residents. As a Bengali, seeing "পুলিশ" on the jackets of police officers gave me warm fuzzies. I had finally set foot in a Bangladesh (literally: Bengali land).

Passing through the border, we got lunch, and got back on a lovely bus, where we slept, looked out the window, and watched Bangladeshi made-for-TV movies. Seven hours mostly flew by, except for a slow ferry crossing across the Padma, the river that traditionally separated East and West Bengal. We arrived in Dhaka at nearly 11:00 pm, and found ourselves stuck in the middle of a jam, our first sight of the City of Traffic.

Gopal Chandra Ganguly didn't touch Muslims. When they came to his house, they were served with separate plates and glasses, to avoid having his Hindu Brahmin family contaminated by their ritual impurity. My grandmother's grandfather didn't hate Muslims; he worked and interacted with them, as long as they knew to keep their infernal Islamic cooties out of his upper-caste Hindu home in Calcutta, India.

The British would finally quit India the following year after a century of anti-colonial struggle, but in 1946, the future of the nation was still being hotly debated in conferences and dining rooms across the subcontinent -- and no issue loomed larger than the Hindu-Muslim question. In formerly peaceful Calcutta, in both majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, racist mobs led attacks on members of the religious minority--the Great Calcutta Riot.

Anti-Muslim riots were spreading closer to his neighborhood when my great-great-grandfather approached two neighborhood Muslim merchants, asking them if they needed help. Could he give them shelter? My grandmother doesn't know what her grandfather was thinking, the mental calculus crunching away in his head, but he said yes. Yes, knowing the disastrous consequences for the two men if they were caught. Yes, knowing the possible violence his family would potentially face from their co-religionists if word got out.

Sheltering hunted minorities in the face of religious violence was no easy task. Gopal Chandra was the head of a large household, comprising about two dozen family members and a number of servants. He had to think fast. If word got out that their household was sheltering Muslims, the house might be attacked by angry Hindu mobs. And he couldn't trust the servants to keep mum. He needed a plan.

Gopal Chandra led the two men into an unused room upstairs, usually left locked. They were cautioned to remain absolutely silent. Late every night, after the servants had gone to bed downstairs, the door was quietly opened so the men could be let out and fed. Most families in the area were living on very limited rations, but the Gangulys was better off than their neighbors. A friendly local merchant, fleeing to a safe area, had given them some extra food before he left, his last gift to a family that had treated him well.

The two men remained hidden away in the unused room as anti-Muslim riots raged. Ten days later, the violence died down and Gopal Chandra Ganguly bid the men goodbye as they fled to safety. My great-great-grandfather's story wasn't exceptional. A people's history of South Asia is filled with these tiny acts of solidarity across communities, at times of peace and crisis.

If I'm ever so tested, I hope to be able to show the same kind of courage under fire, standing up to personal and community prejudices.

Sadly, I am tested every single day, with critical issues of life and death, injustice and war, where I can safely respond without needing to make these difficult decisions, just by exercising my basic democratic rights and wielding my checkbook in the richest country on the planet. I sometimes do a little, but my great-great-grandfather's story challenges me to do more, to take greater risks, in the battle to be human.


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


Enter your email address:

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

October 2009 is the previous archive.

February 2010 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Recently read